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Mandar Shinde

Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Changing Landscape of Education in Italy and in India

Changing Landscape of Education, in Italy and in India

Tobias Jones is a journalist living in Italy with his Italian wife and three children aged 15, 13, and 9. He wrote an article for The Guardian on April 24, 2020 about the situation after school closure in Italy due to COVID-19 outbreak. The article helps us understand how the education system in Italy works. At the same time, some important points in the article made me think about and compare with the state of education in India. Please read and let me know your views.

Mandar Shinde | June 02, 2020 | shindemandar@yahoo.com

Jones mentions that Italy spends a lot less on education than almost every other western country. Spending per student (from primary school to university) equates to 8,966 US Dollars per annum, compared to 11,028 US Dollars in the UK and 11,502 US Dollars in Sweden. Education activists in India have been demanding that 6% of the country's GDP should be spent on education, while the latest reports indicate up to 3% of GDP being spent in reality.

Interestingly, Jones mentions that the Education Minister, Lorenzo Fioramonti resigned in December 2019, in protest of the under-investment on education in Italy. Can you imagine any Indian minister doing that? Just kidding!

Jones informs that there's minimal teacher-training in Italy. Well, it sounds very similar to the Indian approach towards capacity building of teachers. According to Jones, university graduates are often thrown into a classroom without any knowledge of pedagogic theories or practical experience. Inspections are almost unheard of. The result is that Italian education is, at its worst, particularly conservative and condescending: the student is seen as an empty vessel to be filled with knowledge that is poured back in exams. Sounds familiar to the Indian ears, doesn't it?

Jones writes that Italy has the oldest teachers in the world - 59% are over 50 – which has left Italian schools heavily analogue. Kids carry a dozen books to and from school every day in massive backpacks. Jones compares the Italian children with Obelix, a cartoon character in the French comic book series Asterix, who is noted for the menhirs (huge standing stones) he carries around on his back for sculpting. This does not seem like a promising basis for remote learning, he mentions.

Several museums, theatres, aquariums and zoos opened their virtual doors during the lockdown period. Parents started posting pictures of their well-behaved children clicking their way through the museums in different parts of the world. Jones admits that his children spent time watching TV series on Netflix, which made him and his wife feel guilty that they weren’t sharing these cultural delights with their children. It seems that the pandemic somehow took the people out of the rat race, but it could not take the race out of the people. This applies to the Indian parents as well.

After two weeks into lockdown, the teachers in Italy started dumping a load of homework on their students. Jones mentions that many teachers decided it was the best way to send out entire chapters of books for children to learn, and hundreds of pages of exercises to complete. So much for the use of technology and moving towards online education! Even in India, many of the teachers and authorities consider conversion of books from printed to pdf formats equivalent to digitalisation of education. Most of the lockdown period in India was supposed to coincide with summer vacations, but some over-enthusiastic teachers continued to teach children through various online platforms even in the months of April and May.

Jones mentions that the closing of all Italy’s schools forced teachers to invent a new kind of classroom from scratch. There were no ministerial guidelines or approved websites. Jones quotes Daniele Martino, a middle-school teacher in Turin saying: “The entirety of this new form of online teaching was created by us teachers at the last minute." It appears that Governments, in general, never prioritize education, especially in crisis situations.

According to Jones, the situation was chaotic at the beginning. There was little coordination between different teachers within the same schools, let alone across different schools. The parents were overwhelmed by a vast array of IT platforms: Meet, Classroom, Zoom, Jitsi, Edmodo. Even in India, many urban parents kept hopping through platforms like Meet and Zoom, while another section of rural and poor population is still clueless about the role of emerging technology in the education of their children. Similarly, Jones mentions that sites and servers crashed as the almost 80 Lakh Italian students all logged on, while many kids couldn’t connect at all.

Jones mentions the Digital Economy and Society Index that rates Italy 24 out of 28 European countries in its “digitalisation index”. Italy’s national statistics agency, Istat, reported in 2019 that 23.9% of Italian families have no access to the internet. In India, the penetration of internet technology seems to be big in numbers but questionable in terms of quality usage. The spread of technology here is unorganized and industry-driven, instead of being need based and service-driven. Therefore, use of technology for education - in an alternative or supplementary manner - seems quite challenging in India.

Universalisation of education has been on the national agenda for several decades in India. Availability of resources plays an important role in providing equal learning opportunities to all children, irrespective of their social and economic backgrounds. When we talk about online education, we must think about the availability of technology and infrastructure across all sections of society. Do all children in the country have access to the internet and devices necessary for online education? The answer is No. The situation doesn't seem to be very different in Italy, as Jones quotes a teacher saying: “We’ve discovered how democratic pencil-and-paper is.”

Jones reports that the Italian Ministry of Education claimed to have distributed 46,152 tablets throughout the country by the third week of March. Since then, an emergency budget has created a fund of 7 Crore Euros for providing computers to those without. Jones was told by a teacher that even if the necessary hardware is distributed, online classes just don’t work for children who need bespoke (one-to-one) lessons: “Those who are already doing well at school are now doing even better, but those who were struggling are just falling further behind.”

Jones also notes his observations regarding the online classrooms. He mentions that students can hide far more easily online as compared to the physical classrooms, if they're not interested or not motivated. They can give a false excuse of technological issues, freeze the camera, or mute the microphone whenever they want to avoid the session. Teachers need to be proactive and creative in making the online sessions more interesting and attractive.

In Italy, students are given many tests each month and if, at the end of the year, their average score is insufficient, they are failed and have to repeat the year. According to Jones, the new Education Minister, Lucia Azzolina, suggested that in the current situation, no students would be sent back to repeat the year again. On the contrary, the Indian Parliament amended the Right To Education Act, 2009 last year, cancelling the No Detention Policy implemented since 2010. The amendment allows schools to hold back students for a repeat year, if they are unable to achieve the desired learning levels. However, with the medium of education shifting rapidly from offline to online, it is going to be difficult for the teachers to conduct exams under strict supervision, whether in Italy or India. Innovative methods of assessment will have to be derived, considering changes in the overall mechanism of delivering and receiving knowledge.

Jones notes that some students find it embarrassing to share their personal spaces – their bedrooms and, in the background, even their embarrassing parents, during online sessions conducted by their teachers. In The New York Times article dated April 04, 2020, Nicholas Casey wrote that the corona virus has exposed how unequal the lives of students studying together are. When the university students were all in the same dorms and eating the same dining hall food, the disparities in their backgrounds were not as clear as they are over video chat. In India, the differences would be highlighted even further, not just between urban and rural set-ups, but also between urban poor and urban rich. Psychological impact of this exposure needs to be discussed and mitigated proactively.

Another observation noted by Jones is the change in teachers' behaviour from being in an offline classroom to an online one. Jones mentions that one of his children has a class that is usually very noisy: the kids misbehave and the teacher yells, and soon everyone is shouting over each other. Now, the children are controlled by their parents’ presence during online sessions. At the same time, the teacher is also aware that parents could be listening, so the yelling is avoided, resulting in more peaceful sessions. Jones hopes that this could also lead towards an improved and warmer relationship between the students and their teachers.

Jones makes an important comment on the changing landscape of education in Italy. He mentions that students have always felt worried and stressful because of their weekly tests and the stigma of being held back a year. But now many teachers feel insecure, too. It is because of the overall ignorance of the Government towards education, and also because the teachers are scared of digitalised learning and they fear being replaced by screens. In India, the entire education system may not be digitalised so fast, but similar insecurity can be sensed among teachers from urban schools, where students already have access to internet and digital learning resources.

Jones mentions that teachers are trying to cope with the changes and challenges in education, while children are also adapting themselves to the online environment. However, he also quotes a middle-school teacher, Chiara Esposito saying “parents are the most conservative element in the school ecosystem. They become paranoid if their child isn’t ‘an eight’ or hasn’t completed the set book. They’re the ones we really need to educate.” The transformation in the current education system will be incomplete without acceptance and active participation from the parents. In India, teachers experience two extreme conditions - excessive involvement of urban educated parents and absolute disinvolvement of less educated rural parents. A fine balance needs to be achieved in the best interest of the children and their education. The change of medium from offline to online and the growing emphasis on self-learning are going to demand even higher levels of parent participation in children's education. How are we going to prepare parents from various backgrounds to bear this responsibility? Who is going to take care of their capacity building - the schools or the Government? How will the teachers strike a balance between over-involvement and disinvolvement of the parents? We may not have ready answers to all these questions, but it's high time we start thinking and experimenting in the forward direction.

Jones quotes Edoardo Montenegro from Betwyll, which is launching a new social reading app for Italian schools, saying: “A WhatsApp video call or a Zoom meeting isn’t digital learning. Those encounters can be just as frontal and rhetorical as an old-style professorial lesson.”

I believe these are very important comments on the haphazard efforts to digitalise the education system overnight. Most of the teachers are trying to use the online platforms for conducting classroom sessions in the same old traditional manner. The organic need of digitalisation is missing and we are just reacting to a pandemic situation, trying to compensate for loss of teaching hours by exploiting all available online platforms. We need to look at online education beyond the knee jerk reaction during lockdown and should explore the opportunities it might bring to our children in the years to come.

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